Ph.D. programs fail to train students for non-academic careers

All too often, Ph.D. students leave grad school with no idea of how to find jobs outside a traditional academic or research career track. This problem is particularly acute in the humanities and STEM fields without obvious industry career tracks, such as my own, planetary science.

The fault lies with university departments and their faculty. The reason is obvious: professors, those most responsible for training future Ph.D.-holders, typically followed a traditional academic career path (college → grad school → postdoc x n → tenure-track position) and had limited exposure to sectors beyond academia.

I received my Ph.D. from a geology department. Although there are career paths for geologists in all sectors—academia, industry, nonprofit, government, education—my department did not provide any information on non-academic/research career options. The implicit message was the only acceptable career options were in academia, a government lab (e.g. NASA or the USGS, often soft money unless you’re a civil servant), or a non-profit research institution (which is nearly always soft money).

My grad school didn’t train me sufficiently on how to get a non-academic job, but at least the campus was pretty!

My grad school didn’t train me sufficiently on how to get a non-academic job, but at least the campus was pretty!

During my postdoc, when I decided to jump ship from academia, I had to figure out how to do so on my own. My postdoc advisor told me “I can’t help you”—not out of malice but because he sincerely had no idea how to guide me. I was on my own.

To learn how to develop a non-academic career, I joined the Cheeky Scientist Association industry training program. It provided an excellent framework for how to decide in what direction to take my career as well as the steps for how to do it. It’s biased towards the life sciences but has plenty of advice and guidance that applies no matter what your Ph.D. is in.

The training I received worked. I applied to only 1 job; my first day of work was 3 months later. I’ve spent the past ~3 years working at start-up companies and have zero regrets about my decision to leave the career path I had been trained—and expected—to follow.


If you’re an academic wondering how to get a job in the “real world,” here are some places to kickstart your career transition. They include everything from paid career coaching to free articles. In no particular order:

Note: I am not receiving any payment for sharing the resources above. They are included because I honestly believe they are valuable.

It’s impossible to know how grad school exposure to non-academic career paths could have affected my career path; I can only speculate. I do know how my grad school department could have done better, though. Here are my recommendations:

Advice to Professors

  • Explicitly tell your students that you’ll be supportive of their choices even if their career path doesn’t end up looking like yours.

  • Educate yourself on non-academic career options and how to best prepare your students to enter a sector you’re unfamiliar with. For example, do you know how a resume is different from a CV? Do you know what applicant tracking software is and how applicants should write their resume to ensure a human sees it?

Advice to Departments

  • Invite individuals with relevant degrees from diverse sectors to speak about their career paths to students in an informal setting that allows them to ask lots of questions. I participated in an “alternative careers” panel at a major conference and was told by an attendee that she learned more from the panelists in that hour than a semester-long seminar on the topic taught by professors who had never worked outside academia.

  • Maintain an alumni database that grad students can easily access for networking. Simply having a list of where alums work 5, 10, 15, 20 years later can demonstrate to students how non-linear careers can be—and that it’s okay to do something unexpected with your degree.

  • Invite colloquium speakers from outside academia.

  • Have a recruiter educate students on the recruiting, interviewing, and hiring process.

So much of human interaction is nonverbal. No one ever told me in grad school that I would be a failure if I left academia, but that was the message I absorbed. Simply talking about non-academic careers will go a long way in normalizing them.